On Thursday, Colorado’s accountability clock chimes for a dozen schools and five school districts that have failed to show enough academic improvement on state tests during the last seven years.
That means time is up for the schools and districts. State officials are about to intervene in the hopes of setting them on the right course.
Before the State Board of Education begins this work at its Thursday meeting, we’ve rounded up some questions — and answers — about how we got here and how this all works:
What is the state’s accountability clock?
“The clock” is the colloquial term lawmakers, state education department officials and some school leaders use to describe the state’s school accountability law. In 2009, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 163, an update to Colorado’s original accountability law. The law defines how the state measures the quality of schools and school districts, reports it to the public and intervenes if they don’t improve fast enough.
How is school quality measured?
Student performance on state standardized tests in math and English is by far the biggest factor in the ratings.
The state calculates how much students learn year-over-year compared to students at the same starting point. This “growth data” makes up the lion’s share of the report. How many students are meeting the state’s expectations on subject matter — in other words, whether students are at grade level — is a lesser factor.
High schools and school districts also are evaluated on a school’s composite score on college entrance exams juniors take, and how many students graduate or drop out.
Schools can earn one of four ratings. Going from the highest to lowest, they are: performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround. School districts can earn one of five ratings: distinction, performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround.
What happens if my school or school district earns one of the two lowest ratings?
Nothing off the bat. But if a school or school district consistently earns one of the two lowest ratings for five years, the state is required to step in.
If schools and districts only have five years to improve, why has the state waited seven years to take action on these first schools?
The timeline is muddled for two reasons.
First, the law built in a sort of buffer year after the fifth strike that allows schools and the state time to plan corrective actions. Second, because the state changed the tests measuring student achievement, lawmakers in 2015 called a one-year time-out.
So how is the state going to step in?
The state has a menu of options for both schools and districts.
For a persistently struggling school, the state may direct the local school board to:
- Close it.
- Hand it over to a charter management organization.
- Contract with a third party to help run the school.
- Create an innovation plan that spells out strategies and waivers from school and state policy to boost student learning.
For districts, the state has all of the above options, but may also direct the local school board to:
- Merge with a nearby high-performing district (although this would require a ballot question — and this option is a very hard sell politically).
- Hire a third party to help manage all or some portion of the school district.
- Apply for innovation status district-wide.
There’s also an “other” option for school districts?
That part of the law is ambiguous. But state officials take it to mean some combination of the options.
What is innovation status, and an innovation plan?
Innovation schools were created by lawmakers in 2008. When schools or districts apply for innovation status, they’re required to create a plan that does two things. First, they must request a series of waivers from local policy or state law they believe are blocking them from boosting student achievement. Second, they must detail the policies they want to put in place.
Schools often seek flexibility over hiring and firing practices, curriculum and the school district calendar (usually, longer school years or longer days).
Some members of the state board have raised numerous concerns about struggling schools seeking more autonomy through innovation. This is something worth watching as the board considers its options.
Can the state just take over schools like they do in Tennessee or New Jersey?
No. Colorado’s constitutional local control provisions prohibit the state from taking direct control of a school. The local school board still has the ultimate control over schools, even if they haven’t improved in five years.
The state does, however, have some leverage on school districts: accreditation.
Accreditation is basically a seal of approval that signals to the community the school district is meeting all of the state’s expectations and is paying its bills on time. (Seriously, if a school district isn’t fiscally sound, the state can yank its accreditation. But that’s a different story.)
What if the local school board doesn’t agree with the state board’s direction?
This is where the law starts to get really murky.
If a school district with one of the three highest ratings has a school on the clock and refuses to take action, the state board can lower the district’s rating to one of the lowest.
If a school district is on the clock and refuses to take action, the state board can revoke its accreditation.
What happens if a district loses accreditation?
No one really knows. It’s never happened in Colorado before.
Several years ago, the department suggested that losing accreditation would put students’ high school diplomas in jeopardy. It also suggested the state could withhold federal funding. (It can’t withhold state funding.)
But the department has backed off that stance. Now, the department considers the stigma of accreditation loss as enough of a punishment.
What’s going to happen during the next couple of months?
Between now and June, the state board will meet with each school and district twice.
The first meeting will be a quasi-judicial hearing. The department will present their suggestions on what the schools should do, and the schools will have a chance to define their own destiny.
Then a month later, the board will make its ruling on changes the districts and schools should make.
Under state law, this all has to be done by June 30.
What happens after June 30?
The law is silent on how the department is supposed to monitor the schools’ and districts’ progress.
However, department officials and the state board are working under the interpretation that schools and districts are to continue receiving annual quality reviews. If a district or school makes enough progress to earn a higher rating, the clock is reset for them. If the district or school continues to struggle, the state could require additional changes.
Are school districts really going to go along with this?
Early evidence suggests yes. However, the state education department has requested extra money from the state legislature to pay for increased legal services if rumored threats of lawsuits from some school districts become reality.
Is there any evidence this will work?
State intervention is a hotly debated topic across the country. And like many things in education, the results are mixed.
One study in Tennessee found that the struggling Shelby County School District was doing a better job of improving schools under their control compared to those in the district managed by the state.
However, Massachusetts has had some success.
Both of these states had more authority than Colorado, so it’s not a direct comparison.